Salt of the Earth

07 Aug 2020

A house made for a chef

By Ray Owen  »  Photos by Mollie Tobias

Milton Pilson is a hard workingman, driven by the fire that's in him. Such tenacity has led to widespread recognition of his culinary talents, a reputation forged over the past 25 years at 195 American Fusion Cuisine in Southern Pines. Self-made in a way that few others are, he has been guided by a powerful inner compass and strong aesthetic sense.

When it came time to create a new home for himself in Weymouth Heights, all aspects of Pilson’s life converged: an appreciation of modernity; a love for art, classic cars and cooking; and a rise from modest means on a path of self-discovery.

The bones of the place are old, originally a shingle frame Colonial Revival designed in 1922 by famed New York architect Aymar Embury II. By the time Pilson acquired the property in 2017 it was in serious decline, requiring complete rehabilitation.

“The house needed a lot of work,” says Pilson. “I looked it over and decided the central core was the part to save in the restoration. The back bedroom and bathroom were falling down with a poor foundation, and the structure had been added onto over the years.”

“I talked with a couple of builders who were contractors and Decker, my daughter Anna’s husband, designed the floor plan. He had gone to engineering school and he took my ideas and drafted a layout.”

The design was constrained by the function needed for specific areas and, according to Pilson, it was a total team effort. “I think I’ve always liked to work that way,” he says. “In any case, Decker was really the one that started the thing.”

“To finalize our plans, I called James, a guy who’s done work for me over the years,” says Pilson. “He’s not a contractor; he’s just a framer but knows everything about the building trade. James reviewed our drafts and suggested adjustments to align dimensions with standard room sizes.”

The open concept plan created a living, dining and kitchen area that transformed the interior into something bigger and brighter with a light-filled central island and cooking space, the most prominent feature in the room.

“It’s actually one big kitchen,” says Pilson. “I could take a lot of stuff down and be a bit more minimalist, but I constantly use a lot of it day-to-day. In my daily life, almost every meal is prepared as cuisine and I like to take pictures of pretty much everything I make.”

On one end of the living room there had been a little brick patio that wasn’t making the cut, so they replaced it with a mudroom to create an interesting point of entry into the main room. Off the back, they made two small bedrooms, bath and laundry rooms.

“In the kitchen area, we decided to push the wall out to create a dining area looking out onto the backyard,” says Pilson. “We added a small hallway on one end of the structure leading to the master bedroom suite with a bathroom, sauna and walk-in closet.”

“This floor is probably 150 years old. It came out of a warehouse in Sanford, from the big beams that held the structure up. For the ceiling, I wanted to do tongue-and-groove because it helps date the house even though it’s actually new. I like the openness of it.”

The gallery-like rooms provide the perfect setting for Pilson’s collection. “I don’t know that I always liked art, my interest grew over time. When I visited places, I’d stop by a shop or studio and ended up buying a lot over the years. Now it’s nice to be able to sit back and enjoy the different pieces.”

His life wasn’t always like this for Pilson, and in many respects the house is a testament to who he is as a person. Raised on a farm in Cameron, his family produced tobacco, sweet potatoes and other vegetables. A desire to move past the rural boundaries of his background accounts for his interest in modern style.

 “Our house had holes in the sheet rock with cracks in the floor and blocks holding it up,” describes Pilson. “I ended up leaving home just before turning 17, bought a Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia for a hundred bucks and started a Greensboro Daily paper route and finished high school.”

“Having a family was one thing that got me into cooking. My wife had responsibilities and with children someone had to cook. Running a restaurant is completely different. You’ve got to really love it to put in the hours needed to put out a fresh product. In terms of my abilities, I’m happy with what I’ve achieved.”

“I think I discovered myself along the way; this (home) is where I’d like to spend the rest of my life. Green beans, sweet potatoes, a little white beans cooked all day with some onions and jalapeno peppers – I’m good.”

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